Leading in Tumultuous Times: 6 Steps for Uniting Opposition

May 17, 2016

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Molly Watson

Senior Director of Curriculum and Assessment, Accelerate Institute

catalyst_group_exterior.jpgAccelerator principal Liz Jamison-Dunn engages parents and community at Catalyst-Circle Rock in Chicago

It’s no secret  there are passionate debates today in the world of education—and educators often feel pressured to take a stand. At a macro level, we hear arguments both in support and in opposition to divisive topics such as charter schools, Common Core standards, classroom technology, and teacher/principal evaluations based on test scores. At a micro level, schools divide over controversies such as discipline culture, homework policy, instructional pedagogy, and dress code. Ultimately, these heated debates have the potential to create a fractured education community in which children fall further and further behind. Now, more than ever, the children in our schools are depending on leaders to rise above the banter and unite the education community with a focus on student learning. 

Our schools are depending on leaders to rise above the banter and unite the education community with a focus on student learning.

Let’s look at strategies to bridge opposing camps by emphasizing the positive potential of education with a focus on student learning:

1. Bring it back to the mission

Stakeholders depend on leaders to make courageous decisions. Base difficult decisions on what is in the best interest for student learning and clearly communicate the mission as the rationale for all decisions. Rather than having to defend decisions, lead each decision by stating your focus on what is best for student learning.

2. Identify lanes for participation

Many times, well-intended parent groups or community organizations are left grappling for a meaningful way to contribute. If the leader doesn’t create a clear path for productive contribution, then it is difficult to gain momentum with contributions of time and money. In addition, without defined opportunities, organizations can create a distraction to the focus on student learning. By clearly defining the role of stakeholders, leaders can align the work of all parties to accomplish the mission of increasing student learning. For example, if the school’s goal is to increase reading achievement, the leader may ask the parent committee to fundraise for library books or organize reading incentives.

When every topic becomes negotiable, chaos will quickly ensue.

3. Set negotiables and non-negotiables

Non-negotiables provide boundaries for decision making. When every topic becomes negotiable, chaos will quickly ensue. By clearly communicating the non-negotiables and the reasons behind them, stakeholders understand the parameters within which they can work. For example, a principal may hold tight to the non-negotiable that children receive a 45-minute reading intervention every day. However, the intervention lesson planning template may be loosely defined to provide teachers autonomy as they design intervention lessons.  

4. Elicit feedback

Leaders will receive feedback whether it’s solicited or not, so be proactive and seek input in a structured way. For example, ask teachers to submit written “Friday Feedback” including successes, challenges and suggestions for the next week. Similarly, provide parents a venue to share ideas and suggestions through quarterly surveys or town hall meetings.

Be transparent about how decisions are made and the sources of influence.

5. Lead with ‘both/and’

In the attempt to operate in a black-and-white world, leaders may be tempted to approach solutions as ‘either/or.’ However, in some cases, debates can be settled by combining the best from each approach. For example, rather than feeling pressured to choose either a no-nonsense student culture or a nurturing, student-focused culture, find the middle ground by creating both a warm and strict culture.  

6. Connect the dots

Be transparent about how decisions are made and the sources of influence. Leaders’ decisions are often grounded in research, experiences, and input from others. Acknowledge and affirm those sources in order to build ownership. There will be times when decisions are based on confidential information, in which case, the principal may need to ask stakeholders to trust that while the details of the situation are confidential, the crucial decision was made in the best interest of students.  

Ultimately, through strategically uniting all stakeholders’ efforts with a focus on student learning, leaders will be able to better provide a quality education for all children and close the achievement gap.



Molly has over 17 years of experience in education—10 of those years in public school leadership. Prior to Accelerate Institute, Molly was the Principal of Copper King Elementary school in Phoenix, AZ. By developing a dynamic team of teachers, reading and math scores improved over 20% on standardized assessments. She draws on her experiences as principal, assistant principal, and teacher to support principals as they face the challenges in urban education.


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